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December 23, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The Australian Institute for Family Studies has come out with new and entirely predictable findings from a recent survey. The stop-the-presses news is that mothers are more satisfied after a divorce or separation than are fathers. Read about it here (Sydney Morning Herald, 12/22/13).

It’s no surprise that the SMH article doesn’t really grasp the implications of the survey, much less inquire into issues like why mothers might be happier than fathers post-divorce. It also takes at face value certain claims by parents who’ve recently split up.

Recently separated mothers are more satisfied with their new lives than separated fathers but all parents are overwhelmingly positive about the health and wellbeing of their children after the split.

More than two-thirds of parents suffered financial stress since separating, according to a survey of 6000 recently separated parents by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. They struggled to pay the bills on time and had been forced to sell assets and borrow money from family and friends.

According to the survey, more than 90 per cent were satisfied with their school-aged children's wellbeing after the separation and thought they were doing as well as or better than their peers socially.

Four in five parents were satisfied with their relationship with their children.

''The great majority [of children are] found to be faring well on all aspects of wellbeing as assessed from parental reports,'' the report's authors said.

They noted older children were often found not to be doing as well as younger children and all children suffered when their parents experienced physical or emotional abuse.

Sixteen per cent of families in Australia are one-parent families.

The survey revealed more variable rates of satisfaction among recently separated parents with only 45 per cent of parents highly satisfied with life as a whole. More fathers than mothers were dissatisfied with their life as a whole, post-separation, their home, financial situation and health…

''Parental wellbeing varied quite widely,'' the report's authors said. ''Mothers tended to express greater satisfaction than fathers.''

So we have newly separated parents reporting that their children are doing “as well or better than their peers socially.” Hmm. I’m going to guess that reflects less about the actual well-being of the kids than it does about the hopes of the parents for them. Stated another way, if this survey is actually claiming that children generally benefit when their parents divorce, it’s the first one. The enormous weight of social science strongly shows that children suffer in a number of ways when their parents split up.

But this is just a survey of parents and their personal observations. Those of course are far from dispassionate findings; they’re more like what parents project onto their children and, as such, likely reflect some measure of guilt about how the divorce or separation affects them. The parents sincerely want the children to come through the parental split unscathed, so that’s what they tend to see.

Now, the article fails to mention statistical breakdowns of parental attitudes by the sex of the parent, so the statement “four in five parents were satisfied with their relationship with their children” can mean virtually anything. But we do know one thing; about 90% of Australian parents with sole or primary custody are mothers. So my guess is that the great majority of those who are satisfied with their relationships with their children are mothers – the ones who didn’t lose their children via court order.

Likewise, many of the 20% of parents who aren’t satisfied may be mothers who aren’t happy that Dad sees the kids more than the standard once every two weeks. So, as I said, the “four in five” statistic doesn’t tell us much.

But the fact that fathers are less satisfied with their lives following divorce is only to be expected. After all, mothers are far more likely to seek divorce than are fathers, and, at least in the U.S., we know why that is. Researchers Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen analysed some 40,000 divorces in this country and determined that mothers initiate divorce proceedings for one reason that, in Brinig’s words, “swamped all other variables” – they knew they wouldn’t lose the children.

It can’t be much different in Australia where mothers are even more assured of keeping the kids once a court has issued an order for custody and access. Maternal custody rates in the U.S. are about 82%, while in the Land Down Under, it’s more like 90%. So why wouldn’t they be more satisfied with the arrangement than the fathers?

Then there’s the fact that the everyday responsibilities of parenting are Mom’s, not Dad’s.

Mothers were most likely to make decisions by themselves regarding health, education and sporting or social activities. Both parents equally decided their child's religious or cultural ties.their child's religious or cultural ties.

In other words, Dad gets to take some role in decisions that are made once in a child’s life and never again, or maybe not even that. After all, how many times do parents decide what church, synagogue, etc. to send their kids to? In the vast majority of cases, the parents’ religious affiliation was decided long before little Andy or Jenny came along and won’t change when the pair splits up. The same is true with “cultural ties.” A child’s ethnicity doesn’t change just because the parents divorce.

So the idea of fathers’ taking part in deciding a child’s “religious or cultural ties” post-divorce is, in the vast majority of cases, meaningless.

What’s important are the day to day decisions parents make about children’s “health, education and sporting or social activities,” i.e. the things custodial parents do. Again, divorce means dads are shoved to the sidelines of their children’s lives and, unsurprisingly, they’re less content with the situation than are mothers who see the kids every day with Dad’s continuing monetary support into the bargain.

As I said, the article makes no mention of just why fathers might not be too happy with their lives post-divorce, but it does interview one cheerful divorcee whose words sum up the matter pretty succinctly.

Eva Schmalkuche says she is much more relaxed and happy since she separated from her fiance and father of her son, Jaxson, 18 months ago.

“Everything is easier, it's just me and Jaxson, there are no real complications,” the Chatswood mother said.

Yes, Dad as inconvenient interloper in the sacrosanct relationship between mother and child is a recurring tale of divorce as told by mothers, courts and policy-making bodies. The fact that children do better if they don’t lose one parent to divorce or separation isn’t mentioned. And of course the article doesn’t fail to include Schmalkuche’s happy talk about how well-adjusted Jaxson is. See? Children of divorce do just fine; just ask the mothers they live with. Never mind the mountains of social science to the contrary.

So, among other things, we can toss this article into the overflowing file cabinets containing the seemingly endless news media and pop culture messages to the effect that divorce and single-parent childrearing are trends without adverse consequences. Nothing could be further from the truth of course, but why notice that?

National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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